TAITMAIL The museum as playground
Forty years ago after the last refurbishment but one of the museum that is now Young V&A, the then director Anthony Burton, who liked to refer to what was the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood as “the nation’s toyshop”, remarked prophetically: “A later generation could easily take it all away and start again… but it is, I hope of more than local interest”.
Well, it has, and it is. The latest manifestation of the building that was once unkindly known as “The Brompton Boilers” is the latest progression in museum development that will change the way we, and more importantly the next generations, will perceive museums. 150,000 people, large and small, have been through the place in the last couple of months and in the school holidays the Central Line has an all-day rush hour with prams, scooters and bikes with their riders and pushers all making a beeline for the Boilers.
Young V&A (notice that the new title doesn’t carry the odious word “museum”) opened on July 1 after a three-year, £13m make-over, devised to transform the old building (about which more anon) while maintaining its integrity as being Grade II* listed.
This latest V&A adventure is in the new idiom in which the object takes second place to the visitor – ironic, perhaps, in the week in which the queen of museums, the BM, seems to have been exposed as taking less than a proprietorial interest in its own treasures. This place has been built around the consumer, and not just any consumer: this is almost exclusively for 0- to 14-year-olds, and the team of the latest director, Helen Charman, who also happens to be the V&A’s director of learning, has gone deep underground with the youth of Bethnal Green and environs to find out what they really, really want in a - ahem - museum.
This building was never destined to be a kids’ cultural domain. It was designed in the 1850s by a Royal Engineers architect called Fowke as the kind of prefabricated building that could be plonked down on any terrain in any theatre of war, but its first site was the spot in South Ken where the V&A now stands. It was the South Kensington Museum but known as the Brompton Boilers because it looked like a factory, and in the 1870s was surplus to requirements and transported by road to a patch in Cambridge Heath Road where it opened with an assortment from the reserve collection in the hope of bringing a bit of culture to the benighted East End. In the First World War the V&A decided to fill a room full of toys and games from the stores to entertain school-less children. And when a new curator, Arthur Sabin, was put in charge at Bethnal Green in 1922 he created a temporary exhibition for youngsters, which was so successful it became permanent. “In a district like this” he said “children have no background in their homes which will help to create a love of beauty in their minds”. But after he retired in 1940 the notion of a children’s museum died, and BGM was given over to the V&A’s collection of 19thcentury Continental art, including several Rodin bronze casts which had nowhere else to go. It was, in the phraseology of the time, an outstation.
Roy Strong had been fascinated by the fine and decorative artistry there was in some historical children’s costumes, furniture, toys and games and in them an opportunity for BGM so that when he became director of the V&A in 1974 he redesignated the old place as the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, devoted to the history of the arts of youth.
Now, it is about the art of being a child, and if that means shouting, scrambling, pushing buttons until they won’t be pushed anymore, that’s how it is, and any objects from the V&A’s famed collections of fine and decorative art that are here are only here to support that new ethos, not for their own sakes.
It is a trend. At Plymouth Victoria Pomery’s new £42m Box museum has a mission of “Reimagining the future from the past, making a collections-based institution really relevant for an audience of the 21st century”. Esme Ward’s Manchester Museum, open again this year after a £15m remake, tackles the issues affecting the lives of ordinary Mancunians: “It’s about how we care for people, ideas, beliefs and relationships” she says. “Museums have extraordinary power to build understanding and empathy between cultures, across generations and time”. And in each case the new offer has been devised after deep research in the field, not the curatorial study collection.
Young V&A is the first museum to be designed around children, but there is a route to its arrival, starting with the Exploratory installed in the 80s at Temple Meads Station by the psychologist Richard Gregory, who devised “plores” to allow children to discover science and technology through simple games, and which inspired the Science Museum’s Launch Pad basement space. Vivien Duffield took up Gregory’s train of thought when she saw work he’d done in San Francisco, and she founded a Museum for Children to be the opposite of BGM, and put it in Halifax with a new name, Eureka!, at a cost of £9m, where it still thrives. There is now a second Eureka! on Merseyside, a transformation of the former Seaport and centred on science and discovery which opened last year.
The activities at Young V&A are directed at activating kids’ creative imagination in a way that schools cannot (because it’s not in the parameters of the current curriculum, not necessarily because they are not capable). “Ideas are sparked when we get curious and think ‘what if…?’ We can imagine anything” says one piece of didactic. There’s a theatre space in which to dress up and allow fantasy to roll, a large space for tables and drawing materials with which to develop design ideas, an area for the tiniest to build structures with large rubber bricks.
Its main galleries are now designated as Play, Imagine and Design, and they are, as the press release says, “packed full of serious fun and playful learning at every turn”. So this is the latest museum to take on the educational task of developing creativity that schools no longer have. I wonder when there will be a music museum, a performance museum, a literary museum with the same ethic.
But there is something missing here in Young V&A: the V&A. There’s one curious anomaly, an ellipsis between the old thinking and the new, in a small glass case in the tots’ tumbling area. It is an 18th century Italian female head carved from a piece of marble whose caption tells of how human craftsmanship and ingenuity can make a piece of rock as smooth as human skin. But the tots can only look at it - they can’t touch it in its glass case.